INTRODUCING MAIL ART: A KAREN ELLIOT INTERVIEW WITH
CRACKERJACK KID AND HONORIA
_Postmodern Culture_ v.3 n.2 (January, 1993)
Copyright (c) 1993 by Honoria, all rights
reserved. This text may be freely shared among
individuals, but it may not be republished in any
medium without express written consent from the
author and advance notification of the editors.
Hubener: Karen Elliot is the founder of Plagiarism and the
1990-1993 Art Strike. Crackerjack Kid has been active in
mail art since 1978 and is the editor of _Eternal Network_,
an illustrated mail art anthology scheduled for publication
in 1993 by University of Calgary Press. Honoria, a.k.a.
Mail Art Kisses for Peace, Touriste, and Fake Picabia
Sister, hails from Austin, Texas where she is the MailArt
editor of ND Magazine. All three artists are active
networkers who use both the international postal system and
electronic mail links to distribute information, concepts,
and sometimes a surprise wrapped in an enigma.
Karen Elliot (hereafter KE): Well, Crackerjack Kid, they say you
compare mail art to Crackerjack candy--that you like putting
a surprise in everybody's mailbox. Who have you surprised
lately, and who in turn surprises you most often?
Crackerjack Kid (hereafter CJK): I could say that nothing in mail
art surprises me anymore, but it does. D. Peepol of Akron,
Ohio once mailed a lunch bag of black, sooty, perfumed dust
and while I was opening it, the contents spilled over my lap
onto the furniture and floor. A small tag remained in the
sack with the startling announcement: "These are the last
mortal remains of my dear aunty Sarah." Shmuel in
Brattleboro, Vermont is only an hour down the road from me
and yet s/he regularly sends add-on objects like driftwood,
pistachios, walnuts, cryptic coded postcards, and most
recently, a 3-D paper monoplane which arrived in an official
plastic USPS "body bag." Among the most unusal items I've
mailed are navel stamps and a sourdough bread baguette I
carved into a phallus. I stuffed it into an oversized
Crackerjack box for the John Bennett and Cathy Mehrl mail
art marriage show.
(H) One of the weirdest pieces of mail I received was a pop-up
hand made splatter-painted paper sea skate from Kevin in
Atlanta. Somehow our correspondance evolved into sending
each other fish. It became pretty challenging after the
first dozen or so fish images. He even sent me some cut out
ads for efficiency apartments. I sent him a photo of dried
out, ugly as sin, cat-fish heads hanging on a Texas barbed
wire fence. I found a souvenir of Florid, a wooden paddle
in the shape of a fish, the toy kind with a rubber band and
ball attached. I haven't sent it to him yet because our
corresponding fishing hole gradually dried up. I still
send him a bait fish every now and then and when he's in the
mood (maybe now, after art*strike*) he'll get a reel and
flop some more fish on the postal scales. Another long term
correspondent in Indiana sends naive brightly colored
drawings on envelopes with each letter. One of them was
called mother bar-b-ques the cat. These don't have the
verbal shock value of Cracker's examples but if you saw
them you'd agree on their dramatic weirdness levels. But
let me tell you about the most relaxing piece of mail I ever
received. It was from a correspondent in Oregon, a
liscenced massage therapist. He suggested flirtatiously
that he and I engage in a mail fantasy. I told him I was a
prude but would have a fantasy as long as it wasn't a sex
fantasy. I told him I could use a licensed massage
fantasy. He wrote back asking what scent of oil I wanted
and what music. I answered rose with a hint of citrus and
that Mozart clarinet thing and he sent me a full body
massage description in anatomical detail ending with a
secret for turning on the parasympathetic nervous system and
a $5 off coupon.
(CJK) Both Honoria and I could go on forever about wacky mail
because the sacred and profane are so commonplace in the
mail art mailstream. There aren't any rules guiding what
can and can't be sent. Short of mail fraud, mailing bombs,
drugs, or dirt from Canada, most everything gets posted.
There was a mail art show in California with a conceptual
theme titled, "Test the Post Office." Objects mailed
included an addressed water filled balloon. Someone sent a
fifteen feet long garden hose with over a hundred one cent
stamps on the hose surface. A sly mail artist tested the
honesty of the postal system by laminating and addressing a
ten dollar bill; it arrived safely for the show in Los
(KE) You're planning on opening mail art here in this studio loft
in SoHo. So am I right to assume you're having a "mail art
(H) Oh, most definitely! The public will open the mail that's
accumulated at this address over the past three months. We
decided to let the public take the unopened mail art off the
walls and replace it with their own offerings. There are
tables all over the studio with materials for making mail
art. Our show, is just one of several dozen other mail art
shows and projects which simulateously carry on every month.
You can get the newest mail art show listings by writing to
Ashley Parker Owens (73358 N. Damen, Chicago, IL 60645).
Her "Global Mail" is a newsletter of international mail art
events that's published three times yearly in January, May,
and September. There are numerous other trade zines,
bulletins, and mainstream magazines which regularly post
mail art show listings, but I'm most impressed by the sheer
volume of projects and shows in her publication. By the
way, PMC readers can reach CrackerJack Kid via email (see
list at end of interview). He also edits a mail art zine
entitled _Netshaker_. Annual subscription is $12.00 payable
by check or money order at PO Box 978, Hanover, NH 03755.
(KE) But where are the people you invited? Aren't mail art shows
supposed to be public events--places where mail artists can
have a "coming out" and expose their secret, intimate,
hidden mailstream corresponDANCES!
(CJK) Well Karen, I like how you accented Dances because that's
just what mail artists do, they DANCE to an off-beat,
underground chant called "Gift Exchange." Someone once said
mail art was Christmas in the mailbox everyday of the year,
but we're here to let the public cut in on the dance. Our
show in part recalls the first mail art exhibition, The New
York Correspondance School Show" curated in 1970 by Marcia
Tucker at the Whitney Museum. That show incorporated the
work of 106 people, all individuals who had mailed art to
Ray Johnson. The irony was that Johnson's work wasn't
present because he asked his correspondents to submit their
work to him instead. We've invited everybody in New York
City to this show who has the last name Elliot, or
Johnson--in honor of you and especially Ray Johnson who is
the father of mail art. Of course anybody else is welcome
to send mail art too.
(KE) Holy Akademagorrod! Didn't Ray Johnson do that once--I
mean, call everybody named Ray Johnson in the NYC phonebook
to a New York Correspondance School Party?
(H) Not exactly Karen, but Ray Johnson did have a "Michael
Cooper, Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper Club." There were
two Michael Coopers who knew each other, and there was a
third Michael Cooper that Johnson knew. Johnson arranged to
have all the Coopers meet each other. Johnson has arranged
a lot of meetings. His mail art goes back to the
mid-forties and quite a few people in the art and non-art
world have had at least a mailing or two, fragmentary
riddles that add to his mythic legend.
(KE) What does he mail?
(CJK) Cartoon characters like his bunny head, correspondence,
mailings from previous works, and multilayered collages.
Ray Johnson is a pun shaper who finds words within words and
he's a master of wit who often mixes images with texts. But
the best way to experience Ray Johnson is to interact with
him by dropping something in his mailbox. His address is 44
West 7 Street, Locust Valley, New York 11560.
(H) Also, a lot of pictures of Ray Johnson are sent throughout
the network with invitations to intervene upon them. I
received Ray Johnson's high school picture once from Italy.
I cut it in half and put it in two TV sets and sent it back.
How many Ray Johnson bath tubs are there? That's a very
popular project. You usually add yourself to the zeroxed
pile of networkers taking a bath with Ray Johnson. One
imagines the rubberstamp pad ink dissolving off the artists
making a colorful bathtub ring.
(CJK) Ray Johnson is also notorious for his institutional
inventions. In the 1973 "Death Announcements" section of
The New York Times, Johnson announced the demise of his New
York Correspondence School, which was shortly thereafter
reborn as Buddha University. Numerous Johnson inspired Fan
Clubs grew under the rubric of the NYCS. I mentioned the
Michael Cooper Club, but there was also the Shelley Duvall
Fan Club, Marcel Duchamp Fan Club, the Blue Eyes Club and
it's Japanese equivalent, "the Brue Eyes Crub." Johnson's
network of mail art contacts has expanded in recent years to
include phone calls which range from informative to
mysterious. Ray called me one evening two months ago to say
that the first New York Correspondence School meeting took
place in a Manhattan Quaker Meeting House. I was telling
Ray how spirited mail artists interested me, mail art that
shakes, rattles, quakes, and rolls--artists who I'm fond of
calling "netshakers." Johnson said his meeting at the
Quaker House was just a meeting of friends, but he hoped
that the people whould go into religious convulsions and do
(KE) I understand Johnson's importance to mail art, but is there
an association between Ray Johnson and the selection of this
space for your mail art show?
(CJK) Yes, in an oblique way I chose the NYC location over the
Emily Harvey Gallery and Jean Depuy loft because this is
where Fluxus master George Maciunas lived for awhile.
Maciunas and Ray Johnson knew one another. From 1960-61
Maciunas ran AG Gallery at 925 Madison Avenue, a performance
space not far from where we are now. It's been said that
SoHo started due to Maciunas's establishment of the first
SoHo cooperative building at 80 Wooster Street. Johnson
performed a "Nothing" at Maciunas's AG Gallery just before
it closed in July 1961. Maciunas is credited as one of the
founding members of Fluxus.
(KE) What's Fluxus?
(CJK) Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, George Maciunas and a small
group of artists started a new "tendency" or intermedia
perception--George Maciunas named it Fluxus. Fluxus implies
"the state of being in flux, of movement, ephemerality,
playfulness, and experimentalism. This fluxattitude
resulted in numerous publications, feasts, and Fluxfests.
One of those performances occured here when Maciunas married
Billie Hutching on February 25, 1978. Wedding guests and
the "wedding train," performed Flux Cabaret.
(KE) So Maciunas and Johnson were both Fluxus artists?
(CJK) Yes, although if Maciunas were alive today, I doubt he or
Johnson would agree on any close interconnection through
their work. Neither Mail Art or Fluxus are movements as
much as they are tendencies. Maciunas, unlike Johnson or
most of the Fluxus artists, had an anarchistic, utopian
vision whereas Johnson's mail was actually correspondence
art, an intimate, personal exchange between an individual or
small group of people. It was the American Fluxus artist
Ken Friedman who took mail art out of the personal realm and
into the international paradigm in which Fluxus artists were
engaged. Friedman's 1973 Omaha Flow Systems established
the mail art ethic for shows like this one we're having.
Friedman brought his Fluxus background to mail art in the
pursuit of open, democratic, interactive exhibitions which
encouraged viewers to participate. Interaction with
audiences has always been a Fluxus characteristic.
(KE) Let's return to mail art shows for a minute. What shows
have you entered, Honoria?
(H) My favorite mailart activity is entering mail art shows by
submitting small pieces of art at the request of another
networker in response to their chosen theme. I ended up
painting hundreds of postcard sized figures and skeletons in
response to the shadow project(s) commemorating the people
vaporized by the WWII atomic explosion on Hiroshima. I put
some of them on a black poncho and wore them to a Day of the
Dead celebration in Austin and danced to cojunto music. You
never know where mailart will go or send you. I used to
work in an isolated and local competitive market (fine) art
environment. Now I feel the flow of art & ideas in and out
of my studio room is part of a huge global art studio where
we get together to gossip, philosophize, show each other new
unfinished work, and communicate fresh ideas. The mailartist
to mailartist communication uses all kinds of shortcuts that
artist-to-general public, or even informed art historically
astute public will not *get*. Our jargon, in-jokes and
creative playfulness are as slippery as freshly licked glue
on the back of a 50 cent stamp about to be placed on a
recycled envelope bound for Japan. For instance, everyone I
know outside the network thinks plagiarism is a naughty
deceit. Within the network Plagiarism is an art movement.
In fact, there have been festivals of plagiarism. Recycling
other artists images is a basic concept in mail art.
(CJK) Appropriation, sorting, and shuffling written texts is also
a very corresponDANCE kind of improvisational jazz you'll
find in the mail art network. Indeed, name sharing and
detourning strategies began surfacing in mail art back in
the early 1970s. Dadaism, Nouveau Realisme, Futurism,
COBRA, Fluxus, and Situationalism have all played varied
influential roles in the mail art mailstream.
(H) Now Karen, just between us girls, I want to know if you've
been catching this drift? I've noticed a renewed interest
in the actions and representations of women in the network.
Jennifer Huebert (POB 395, Rifton, NY 12471) just collected
mail from women networkers who attended congresses in 1992.
I'm looking forward to reading other people's views. In a
huge network full of pseudonyms and correspondents who don't
speak each others languages I think it's odd, but fun, to
examine the yin/yang aspect of it all. One networker is
(CJK) Yeh, I know ManWoman! S/he's a Canadian Pop Artist, a
musician, poet, and a shaman who has an on-going project to
restore the sacred, mystical significance of the ancient
swastika--before it was denigrated by National Socialism.
S/he believes in dreams and can analyze their symbolic
significance. When I told ManWoman that Cathyjack and I
were trying to have a child, S/he sent me a fertility chant
which, low and behold, WORKED within a week after I received
it in the mail. That makes ManWoman more than just a
charming individual--S/he's a very kind, gentle soul, a
sage. There's a certain charismatic aura and mystery in
meeting such people through the mail--pseudonyms like
ManWoman and Michael VooDoo help to create an unpredictable,
unusual postal pantheon.
(H) I have deduced from my correspondence that some mail artists
perceive Honoriartist as a male. Maybe it's due to my
fertile imagination (although to my knowlegdge my mail has
never been responsible for a pregnancy) plus my connections
and art collaborations with transvestites. Then there's all
this collaborating going on between many artists. However,
in the process of the historification of mailart someone
will get interested in who is actually who and what sex they
are. I am quite content 2 be both or more.
(KE) I can certainly understand reasons for creating fictive
monikers, but judging by both of your comments it seems that
fact is often stranger than fiction in mail art netland.
Now, on to a final question or two. Readers of PMC have
seen sporadic Networker Congress and Telenetlink Congress
listings in their electronic forum throughout 1992. You
(C.J. Kid) and Reed Altemus have called attention to
yourselves as facilitators of these congress events. What's
this congress biz all about?
(CJK) 1992 was the year of the World-Wide Decentralized Networker
Congress, otherwise known as METANET, or NC92. The
Networker Congresses were first proposed by Swiss conceptual
artist H.R. Fricker in "Mail Art: A Process of Detachment,"
a text presented in March 1990 for my book Eternal Network:
A Mail Art Anthology (to be published in Dec. 1993 by
University of Calgary Press). In early 1991 Fricker met
with fellow Swiss artist Peter W. Kaufmann and together they
drafted an invitational flyer entitled, Decentralized
World-Wide Networker Congress 1992. The congress call went
out to anybody, "Wherever two or more artists/networkers
meet in the course of 1992, there a congress will take
place." The Networker Congresses, like the Mail Art
Congresses of 1986, grew into a huge forum of 180 congresses
in over twenty countries.
(KE) Sounds like an enormous project. How was it organized?
(CJK) H.R. Fricker and Peter W. Kaufmann sought active, creative
input from networker artists on six continents. American
artists Lloyd Dunn, Steve Perkins, John Held Jr., Mark
Corroto, and I joined Fricker and Kaufmann early (summer
1991) in the development of the NC92 concept and served as
active "netlink facilitators." Final drafts of the
Networker Congress invitations included netlink contacts
from Africa, South America, North America, Asia, Europe and
(KE) Is it fair to assume that the networker artist has grown out
of the mail art phenomenon?
(CJK) I think so. The Networker Congresses were based on the
acknowledgment that a new form of artist, the networker, was
emerging from international network cultures of the
alternative press, mail art community, telematic artists,
flyposter artists, cyberpunks, cassette bands,
rubberstampers and stamp artists. The year-long collective
work by networkers of NC92 represents the first major effort
among artists to cross-over and introduce diverse
underground networks to each other. Until this moment
countless marginal networks, often operating in parallel
directions, were unaware of one another. Mail artists that
network have a sense of what intermedia and interactivity
involve--it's a consciousness which branches outward. One
could say that mail art's evolution was based upon
intermedia--the mailstream merging of zines, artist stamps,
rubberstamping, correspondence, sound sculpting with audio
cassettes, visual poetry, and artists' books. Communication
concepts have been the medium and message that mail artists
use to bind together these divergent forms of expression.
Today, forms like stamp art have become genres unto their
own, with proscribed criteria often veering towards
normative art standards more than the spirit of a process.
I read somewhere in Lund Art Press that the most successful
intermedia forms eventually cease to be intermedia. These
creative forms evolve into the qualitative characteristics
of techniques and styles and will finally become established
media with names, histories and contexts of their own.
Indeed, the rarity of mail may come to pass with the
continued escalation of postal rates. This may encourage
more qualitative standards within the mail art network.
(KE) Well Cracker--Can I call you Cracker? (Crackerjack nods his
head)--what's wrong with qualitative standards?
(CJK) Hey Karen, didn't you know that when you're really good
they call you crackerjack? Really though, for me, the
thrill of the process is being inventive, taking yourself
somewhere you haven't been before. It can certainly go
stale if you don't know when to let go, when to hold back
from too much mail. Burnout in mail art is rampant. I'm
not a statistician, but to get a focus on what my mail art
activities involve each year, I set about tallying all my
in-out going mail for 1992. It revealed some startling
figures to me. Not including hundreds of email message,
I've sent out over 1,150 mail art works and have received
1,250 pieces in return. These figures state that I usually
answer most of the mail that I receive. It also shows that
with all of my international mailings, I spend, on the
average, about $1.20 postage on each item of mail art I
send. That makes for an expensive passion! I might want to
cut back. I might want to reconsider the investment of my
time and energy, or I might decide to conserve the time,
energy, and money for those I feel return the same
intensity, joy, and playfulness of dialogue. The bottom
line is that there are personal criteria for entering and
leaving mail art. You definitely receive what you are
willing to give and you quickly find out what your threshold
for tolerance is.
(KE) Let's return to the networker congress concept. What kinds
of congresses were there in 1992?
(H) I was invited to a place I'd never heard of called Villorba,
Italy by a long time correspondent, Ruggero Maggi, who sent
me some wonderful kisses when I did my kiss show. I went to
congress with the Italians and wow, am I glad I did. Long
philosophical talks on the lawn of the beautiful Villa
Fanna, videos of many networkers, performances, poetry,
hours of exchanging, making, sending artworks, food, wine,
joy, laughter, howling at the moon, walking barefoot in
mudpuddles.... Well, you can just imagine it took the wind
right out of my mid-life crisis. This congress was
dedicated to the great mail artist A. G. Cavellini and they
just made his archive into a museum. We just don't have
time to get into Cavellini and the philosophy of "don't make
Art make PR" and self-historification etc..
(CJK) Among the scores of other congress themes were John Held
Jr.'s Fax Congress, Jennifer Huber's Woman's Congress,
Miekel And & Liz Was's Dreamtime Village Corroboree, my own
Netshaker Harmonic Divergence, Rea Nikonova and Serge
Segay's Vacuum Congress, Bill Gaglione's Rubberstamp
Congress, Mike Dyar's Joseph Beuys Seance, Guy Bleus's
Antwerp Zoo Congress, and O.Jason & Calum Selkirk's Seizing
the Media Congress. There were also numerous, on-going
networker projects including Peter Kustermann and Angela
Pahler's global tour as "netmailmen performers." Throughout
1992 Kustermann and Pahler travelled, congressed, lectured,
recorded a diary, and hand-delivered mail person-to-person.
Italian mail artist Vittore Baroni helped create and record
a networker congress anthem, Let's Network Together, and
American mail artist Mark Corroto produced _Face of the
Congress_ networker congress zine.
(KE) So how do you think all these NC92 congresses worked? Did
they succeed or fail?
(CJK) I think they were remarkable! Most of the organizers of
NC92 congresses have been active international mail artists.
They have emerged from the networker year of activities with
a deeper awareness of intermedia involvement in global
network communities, and a realization that "I am a mail
artist, sometimes." While many mail artists visited friends
in the flesh, others, unable to travel, "meta-networker
spirit to spirit" in the NC92 Telenetlink Congress, a
homebased telecommunication project conducted with
networkers using personal computers and modems. Serbian and
Croat mail artists established networker peace congresses,
one such congress taking place in a village where a battle
raged around them.
(KE) Our on-line readers would probably like to know what your
Telenetlink Congress was about. Can you briefly state your
(CJK) My objectives were to introduce and eventually netlink the
international telematic community with the mail art
mailstream. I began forming an email list of
telecommunication artists which I compiled from responses to
my numerous NC92 Telenetlink postings on internet, BBS',
electronic journals, and Usenet Newsgroups. I began
Telenetlink in June 1991 by participating in Artur Matuck's
global telecommunication project Reflux Network Project.
There I served as an active netlink between the telematic
community on one hand, and the mail art network's
Decentralized World-Wide Networker Congress, 1992. Where
these two projects intersected there were informal on-line
congresses in which the role of the networker was discussed.
Conceptual on-line projects such as the Spirit Netlink
Performance drew in crowds of participants at the Reflux
Network Project link in the Sao Paulo Bienale.
(KE) Haven't mail artists and telematic artists interacted
through collaborative projects using mail and e-mail?
(CJK) It comes as no surprise that pioneering telematic artists
like Fred Truck, Judy Malloy, and Carl Loeffler were once
quite active in mail art's early years, but efforts to
combine both mail art and telematic forms were never fully
approached. My Telenetlink project was the first home-based
effort to interconnect the telematic and mail art worlds.
By netlinking both parallel network worlds, I found many
common tendencies; internationalism, interest in intermedia
concepts, respect for cultural diversity, humor,
ephemerality, emphasis upon process art rather artifact,
humor, global spirituality unencumbered by religious dogma,
utopian idealism, experimentalism, and interest in
resolution of the art/life dichotomy. Prior to Telenetlink
there were mail artists such as Mark Block (U.S.), Ruud
Janssen (The Netherlands), and Charles Francois (Belgium),
whose efforts were aimed at introducing mail art through
their own private Bulletin Board Services, but netlinking
mail art and the telematic community through mainframes on
internet hadn't been explored. Fewer than four dozen mail
artists are actively using computers to explore
communicative art concepts, but that number is rapidly
changing now that computer technology is more affordable.
Still, some mail artists view their form as more intimate,
tactile, expressive, and communicative than
telecommunication art. Other mail artists regard computers
with mistrust, suspicion, even fear. Likewise, I have heard
telecommunication artists view mail art as a primitive,
slow, outmoded, form of expression. I prefer to think of
telematic art and mail art as useful tools for creative
communication. It's not a matter of one form being superior
to another. I think the time is right for mail artists and
telematic artists to get acquainted--to netshake--to
telenetlink worlds. Here's a list of telecommunication
artists who use mail art and email as intermedia forms. I
think this is the best way Honoria, Karen Elliot, and I can
help PMC readers learn about mail art--to experience the
(KE) Well, I think that's a good way to come full circle in this
discussion. To know mail art and telematic art is to
experience it. Thanks Honoria and Crackerjack for opening
up some possibilities to interconnect network communities.
Reed Altemus: IP25196%PORTLAND.bitnet
George Brett: email@example.com
Burning Press: au462@cleveland.Freenet.edu.
Anna Couey: firstname.lastname@example.org
Crackerjack Kid: Cathryn.L.Welch@dartmouth.edu
Keith DeMendonca: email@example.com
Pete Fisher: Pete.Fischer@stjhmc.fidonet.org
Joachim Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Gale: email@example.com
Matt Hogan: m91hogan.acs.syr.edu
Judy Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org
Artur Matuck: am4g+@ANDREW.CMU.EDU
Paul Rutkovsky: email@example.com>
Scot Art: Scot.Art@f909.n712.z3.fidonet.org
Uncle Don: DPMILLIKEN@amherst.edu
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